Former prosecutors say Merced DA Morse made lewd comments to female employees

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II Merced Sun-Star file

Three former Merced County prosecutors say longtime District Attorney Larry Morse II made lewd comments to female subordinates dating back several years and inappropriately kissed one of his married employees about five years ago.

Attorneys Ilia and Mike McKinney, who are married, and retired attorney Rita Carlson said they are speaking out now because they no longer are employed by Morse. They said they hope bringing these issues to light will motivate progress in Merced County in the same way other stories have brought about change in recent months in what has become known as the #MeToo movement.

“We left Merced because of this stuff,” Ilia McKinney told the Sun-Star. “They need to improve how they treat women in that office.”

McKinney and her husband, Mike, are veteran prosecuting attorneys who left Merced County in October for lateral positions in the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office.

Morse, a 60-year-old veteran prosecutor and elected official, has been the Merced County district attorney since 2006. He is up for re-election this year, seeking his fourth term in office.

Morse said, even before he first was elected as district attorney, no supervisor ever questioned or counseled him regarding any such behavior.

“This catches me totally and completely by surprise,” Morse said. “I’m shocked, disappointed and, frankly, hurt.”

Morse acknowledged “flaws” but said it was unfair to bring up claims, some of which date back many years, that never were brought to his attention before now. He said he should have been given the opportunity to address any potential grievances privately.

Morse said he’s never had a complaint filed against him and said such behavior simply isn’t the culture he promotes in his office.

Mike North, Merced County spokesman, said there “haven’t been any settlements of sexual harassment claims specific to Mr. Morse. No lawsuits, torts or claims alleging sexual harassment have been filed with the Board (of Supervisors) against Mr. Morse.”

Kissing women and making lewd comments

CW vehicle murder case 3
Former Deputy District Attorney Ilia McKinney speaks in court while looking at her laptop on Thursday, July 13, 2017 in Merced.

McKinney, a 37-year-old prosecutor, said Morse kissed her on the lips in front of her husband – who also was a deputy district attorney in Morse’s office at the time – during an after-work gathering about five years ago. McKinney said Morse also made lewd comments to her repeatedly during her pregnancies, including numerous suggestions that performing oral sex would guarantee giving birth to a boy.

McKinney said she felt angry and powerless when Morse kissed her on the lips at a downtown Merced bar. She said they’d arrived at the Main Street bar for an after-work get-together with colleagues. She said Morse went to greet her and kissed her on the lips “suddenly” and “without any warning.”

“I felt totally violated,” McKinney said, “but he’s my boss. What am I supposed to say to him?”

Morse said he had no memory of the kiss, but acknowledged it may have occurred, saying that, if it happened, “it would’ve been as a greeting of some sort.”

“I considered Ilia a friend,” Morse said. “There was never anything remotely sexual.”

Morse said it’s common for him to kiss women on the cheek and he said it’s also common for women to kiss him on the cheek and sometimes on the lips, but as a casual greeting only.

Her husband, Mike McKinney, said he was shocked to see his boss kiss his wife and also felt there was little he could do without jeopardizing their careers.

“As a husband, I definitely didn’t like another guy kissing my wife,” Mike McKinney said. “But you have a boss who controls everything about your career.”

He said there were “plenty of times” he wanted to speak out but held back.

“It’s a weird position for me because it’s my boss and it’s also Ilia’s boss,” Mike McKinney said. “It’s tough for me to get involved and in some ways, it’s not right for me to jump in. I didn’t want to create the impression that I think Ilia can’t speak for herself.”

Deputy Merced County Public Defender Stephanie Jamieson confirmed Ilia McKinney spoke with her about the kissing incident at least four years ago.

“I remember her being shocked,” Jamieson said. “She didn’t know what to do.”

Jamieson also said she and McKinney discussed McKinney feeling sexually harassed by comments Morse made. She said McKinney spoke with her about Morse making inappropriate comments many times dating back at least four years.

Two other people confirmed they were told about the kiss and the sexual comments directly by McKinney around the time of the incidents.

McKinney said Morse also made lewd comments to her numerous times during her tenure in Merced, including remarks about her body, her appearance and oral sex.

“I just accepted it as part of being a female D.A. in Merced,” McKinney said.

McKinney said Morse made other comments to her when she was pregnant that made her uncomfortable.

She said Morse told her performing oral sex would guarantee giving birth to a boy and he made what she described as an obscene gesture with his hand and mouth, depicting oral sex.

“There was constant and repeated advice about that, usually with the gesture,” McKinney said.

Morse said he had “zero recollection” of making that specific comment, but said he has used a different description of a sexual act that supposedly “guarantees” giving birth to boys.

Rita Carlson cropped

The remark as described by Morse was the same comment Carlson said Morse made to her in presence around 2000. Carlson said several attorneys had gathered in an area commonly used for employee breaks. She said Morse, who was a supervisor in the office at the time, but not yet the district attorney, was being congratulated on the birth of a child.

Specifically, Carlson said, Morse was asked if he and his wife had been hoping for a girl. Carlson said Morse remarked that he always has boys in his family and never has girls.

“He said he didn’t have girls because ‘I put it in deep and I put it in hard’ or words to that effect,” Carlson said. “I was just appalled that someone would say that.”

Morse acknowledged making the comment but said he doesn’t believe he would have said that in front of Carlson. He said he was “extraordinarily careful” about what he said around Carlson.

“Yes, I used that description, but not in the office. I don’t believe I ever said that in the office,” Morse said. “Yes, it’s sort of (an) old-guy bluster comment that’s been around for decades.”

DA says allegations ‘incredibly unfair’

McKinney said Morse also made comments she felt were inappropriate after she returned from maternity leave.

“Larry came into my office and made me stand up behind my desk. He made complimentary-type remarks about how much baby weight I’d lost,” McKinney said.

She said the attention embarrassed her. She didn’t feel comfortable with her employer examining and critiquing her body, she said.

Morse acknowledged the comment and said it was neither sexual nor harassment.

“If that was wrong, I apologize. It was not meant in a demeaning way. It was meant as a compliment,” Morse said. “If that’s wrong in this climate, then I made a mistake and I accept that.”

Morse described the allegations as “incredibly unfair” and blasted the claims, saying he had “no memory” of some of the incidents and said other claims were “taken out of context” by “disgruntled” former employees.

“Sure I’ve said things (that) in retrospect were ill-advised or stupid. God knows I’ve said many stupid things in my life. I’m as flawed as any person,” Morse said.

However, Morse described conversations in the office as “innocent.”

“You take them completely out of context and make it into something sinister,” Morse said. “This stuff is taken out of context. We had a friendship relationship. It’s not sexual. It’s not harassing.”

McKinney said that while she was pregnant Morse would “constantly remind me to do my Kegel exercises,” exercises designed to strengthen the pelvis.

“It was so incredibly uncomfortable to have my boss talk about my vagina,” she said.

Morse said he didn’t recall talking about Kegel exercises, but said it might have been “failed attempts at humor.”

“I might have. Sometimes I think I’m funny and I’m not,” Morse said. “I don’t have any recollection of that. I couldn’t tell you that I never said that.”

Additionally, Morse acknowledged his sense of humor over the years included a habit of unsnapping bras. He described it as a prank he played on “friends” and a “pretty sad attempt at humor.” He said he stopped doing it at least 10 years ago.

“I’ve done it. It’s understood to be a joke,” Morse said. “Clearly, it’s not funny. I never had anyone (complain). Never had anyone confront me about that.”

He said he “absolutely never” unsnapped the bra of a subordinate employee or in the office.

He said it was “never done in a sexually harassing way.”

“I don’t know what someone else would consider it to be,” Morse said.

Debate over why attorneys left the DA’s office

Ilia and Mike McKinney were promoted during their tenure in the office. By the time they left late last year, both were working on some of the county’s highest-profile cases, including violent felonies, sexual assaults, street gang and child abuse cases.

Despite both attorneys handling serious felony cases for extended periods of time, Morse said Mike McKinney had been “reprimanded repeatedly about his work,” specifically for what Morse described as disorganization and for not taking enough cases all the way to trial.

Morse also said he sent an email to the Santa Cruz district attorney after the McKinneys went to work there in October. In the email, Morse said, he criticized Mike McKinney but said he would “miss Ilia.” Morse said he believes the McKinneys wanted revenge for the email and because Mike McKinney had been criticized verbally about his work in Merced.

“That’s where this is coming from. I think Mike McKinney is very bitter about his time in this office,” Morse said. “This is an effort to throw dirt on me and the management in this office in retaliation.”

Mike and Ilia McKinney said they didn’t know Morse had sent the email to their new employer. Both McKinneys said they shared their issues concerning Morse with management at the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s Office while they were interviewing for their new positions.

Mike McKinney confirmed he’d been verbally reproached for some of his work, including his trial statistics. He said he’d never been demoted or formally reprimanded.

Both McKinneys said they didn’t like the way Mike McKinney was treated by management in Merced but said it was “absurd” to suggest they’d fabricate allegations because Mike McKinney had been criticized by a supervisor.

“That reprimand didn’t bother me as much as what (Ilia McKinney) was going through,” Mike McKinney said.

Ilia McKinney described Morse’s assertion as “insane.”

“The reality is these things happened to me. I don’t know under what context it’d be OK to say these things to an employee,” McKinney said. “I don’t know how that’s OK in any circumstance.”

Morse also said McKinney was overheard discussing sex with co-workers at office parties and he’d heard her swear frequently.

“I never had the slightest idea she was offended,” Morse said.

McKinney said there’s a clear difference between friends or co-workers – all of whom are free to object without fear of jeopardizing careers – discussing sex or using profanity and an employer or supervisor making specific sexual comments about a subordinate employee and her body.

“None of my friends ever talked to me about my vagina or told me to do my vagina exercises or ogled my body,” McKinney said. “None of my friends ever kissed me on the lips.”

She said Morse was “conflating sexual topics with making personal comments about my sexuality.”

“That’s what I found demeaning and offensive,” McKinney said.

McKinney described Morse’s behavior as “inappropriate” and “intimidating,” but said she never feared for her safety. She said she felt sexually harassed.

“You’re free to tell your friend to stop,” McKinney said. A friend “is not in a position of power over me.”

‘I didn’t know what to say’

Other examples of Morse making women uncomfortable in the workplace go back two decades when he was a deputy prosecutor and a senior-level supervisor in the office, according to Carlson, who retired from the prosecutor’s office in 2011.

“He was just inappropriate with his sexual conversations with females,” Carlson said.

She said that during a Christmas gift-exchange at the office in the late 1990s, Morse gave her a magazine subscription.

“He told me he considered giving me a push-up bra, but got me Vanity Fair, instead,” Carlson said. “I didn’t say anything, I don’t think, at the time. I didn’t know what to say. It was just feeling like what a jerk that he could make that kind of comment to me.”

Morse said he doesn’t believe he would have made that remark to Carlson.

“I know I was extraordinarily careful about what I said (around Carlson),” Morse said.

He said Carlson has been upset with him for about a decade after she was transferred off of sex crimes cases. He said he couldn’t explain why Carlson would come forward with allegations now and said those issues were never raised during the nearly two decades they worked together.

Carlson said she feels that in the 1990s making a formal complaint about such remarks simply wouldn’t have been taken seriously in Merced County and may have hurt the person complaining more than the person accused.

Fear of retaliation kept lawyer silent

Allison West is a veteran employment attorney and investigator specializing in HR-related issues. When Charlie Rose was suspended and eventually fired from CBS in December amid sexual misconduct allegations, West was brought on board at CBS to conduct workplace sexual harassment training.

In an interview with the Sun-Star, West said a supervisor kissing a subordinate employee on the lips without consent is “always totally inappropriate.”

“A DA kissing an attorney on the lips – it’s not good,” West said. “It’s someone who reports to them, it’s that power over them.”

West said while one kiss or inappropriate comments usually won’t rise to the level of a legal violation, employer workplace policies typically are tougher and provide more protection for employees.

In a December interview with CBS News, West said “a kiss could potentially violate the (company) policy. But under the law there are very few attorneys that would take a case for one kiss because it would not rise to the level, typically, of violating the law.”

Merced County has a “zero tolerance” anti-harassment and discrimination policy that applies to all employees, including elected officials. A copy of the policy, as well as steps a person can take to file a complaint, can be found on the county’s website. The policy says, in part, “It is no defense to a claim of harassment that the alleged harasser did not intend to harass.”

McKinney said she didn’t complain for two reasons: fear of retaliation from Morse and because there’s little county authorities can do to an independently elected official.

“I never talked to (Morse) about it. Never. I was way too afraid to complain,” she said. “I felt afraid to say anything even slightly disapproving.”

McKinney said she doesn’t intend to sue Merced County, though she hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

“I don’t want to take money from Merced County. I feel like that would just punish the citizens and not the people who are doing things wrong,” McKinney said. “But if that’s the only way to force them to create a safe workplace environment for their employees, then that’s what I’d have to do.”